posted by Howard Fosdick on Wed 7th Jul 2010 16:58 UTC
IconLast month, I described how the computer industry encourages planned obsolescence in order to sell more product. This business model exacerbates the problem of computer disposal because it artificially shortens computer lifespans. This increases production and, ultimately, the numbers requiring disposal. One result is that e-waste -- electronics waste -- is one now one of our most pressing environmental challenges. Updated

There are about one billion PC's in use worldwide. There are an additional several hundred million sitting in basements and attics awaiting disposal. Given average lifespans of only two to five years, a tidal wave of computers requiring disposal sweeps towards us. In the United States, the vast majority will not properly disposed of.

What toxins do consumer PC's contain? Where do they end up? And what can you do about it?

A Toxic Brew

Let's start with the toxins computers contain. It's not a pretty picture:

Toxin:
Use and Effects:


Lead CRT display monitors contain anywhere from two to eight pounds of lead, which can cause brain damage in children and other neurological effects if ingested. CRT's are being disposed of in massive numbers, due to the switch to flat-panel technology. (We're seeing the same phenomenon in TV disposal as the public switches from analog to digital TV). Circuit board soldering also contains lead.
Mercury and Arsenic Flat panel and laptop displays contain mercury and arsenic, poisonous even in small amounts. Mercury is also present in circuit boards.
Cadmium Every desktop contains a battery, and laptops contain two or three. Cadmium is among the toxicants in batteries. It's also found in SMD chip resistors, semiconductors, infrared dectectors, and some plastics. Cadmium is a known carcinogen that concentrates within the human body.
Phosphorus The insides of CRT display monitors are coated with phosphorus dust. You don't want to inhale it.
BFR's Brominated flame retardants or BFR's coat computer plastics. BFR's have hormonal effects and leading manufacturers like Apple have stopped using them.
Beryllium Beryllium is another known carcinogen, used in circuit boards and connectors.
Polyvinyl Chloride and Plastics
PVC and plastics compose roughly 20% of computers. Burning them releases dioxins and furans.
Barium Barium is present in CRT's to protect users from radiation. It's not as beneficial in landfills or your drinking water.


Burning computer components releases dioxins, furans, PCB's, and other toxins into the atmosphere, and also into the lungs of anyone nearby.  Why would anyone incinerate a PC?  It's the cheapest, low-tech way to separate the worthless plastics from the salable metals. If you reside in a poor country without environmental and safety standards, this is how you separate and "recycle" materials. For example, yank the wires from desktops, then burn them to separate the worthless rubberized plastic coating from the salable copper within.

With over 1,000 different materials going into computer manufacture, it's not surprising many harmful elements are involved. You can encourgage manufacturers to limit the toxins they put into computer equipment. Just use the web tool called EPEAT to buy the most environmentally-friendly items. EPEAT has a database of several thousand computers and displays and rates them all on a variety of environmental criteria.

Where Do The Toxins End Up?

Where all the toxins in computers end up depends on many factors, one of which is the country disposing of them. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than 15% of e-waste is properly recycled. Of the remaining 85% that is improperly disposed of, some goes straight into landfills. Most goes overseas.

The overseas trade works like this. The U.S. imports billions of dollars of goods from China every year. All these items arrive in standard shipping containers. Since the U.S. exports very little back to China (as measured by volume), the majority of these shipping containers go back to China empty. So shipping to China is very inexpensive, and shipping even very low-value items there makes economic sense.

While Americans are eager to dispose of their toxic e-waste, China lacks the safety and environmental standards common to developed nations. And the Chinese labor rate is very low.

This combination of cheap shipping, inexpensive labor, and a lack of safety and environmental law breeds a thriving export trade. Computers and other e-waste goes to China and sometimes Africa where it is "recycled" with a complete lack of environmental and safety rules.

A few pictures tell the story. Here's how your old monitor is dissassembled to get at the valuable copper inside. Workers lack protection against inhaling the phosphorus dust coating on the inside of the display screen:

Mining Copper


These Nigerian children pose in front of open-air e-waste burning next to their home:

Open Air Incineration


This former farmer is picking chips off circuit boards by bathing them in acid. He has no protection from the acid fumes:

Acid BathsPiles of Circuit Boards

These pictures are courtesy of Basel Action Network ((c) 2010), an organization dedicated to eliminating these practices.

Of course, any economic activity has its downsides and scofflaws. The critical question is: how prevalent is this export trade? How much American e-waste ends up being improperly recycled in China and Africa?

The firms engaged in this toxic trade try to hide what they're doing, so one can only estimate. I've found responsible estimates asserting that from 50% to 80% of American e-waste goes into this business. The phenomenon has become so prevalent that it has been exposed repeatedly in the media. Check out 60 Minutes, NPR, PBS Frontline, CNN, BBC World News, and the Huffington Post.

This trade has become a thriving business. Companies called "fake recyclers" approach well-meaning organizations -- charities, churches, and community organizations -- and offer to hold a Recycling Day. The charity provides publicity, legitimacy, and a parking lot for the event. On the designated day, well-meaning residents drop off their old electronics for recycling. The fake recycler picks it up in their trucks, hauls it away for shipping, and makes money by exporting it to Chinese or African "recycling" centers. Nobody's the wiser.

This story, for example, describes how alleged fake recycler EarthEcycle approached the Humane Society, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the Boy Scouts of America for a "recycling" event. Seven e-waste containers were traced to Hong Kong and South Africa. 

Organizations with outstanding reputations are conned into participating in this business while believing they are engaging in beneficial activity. It's not their fault. Since fake recycling is unregulated by U.S. law, anyone is free to call themselves a recycler and sell materials into the overseas trade. Misrepresentation about it is not illegal. Fake recycling is a thriving business.

It's Not Illegal?

Given that U.S. environmental practice has dramatically improved since the first Earth Day in 1970, one might wonder that fake recycling is legal.  In fact, the international community devised a set of rules and agreements to control e-waste disposal and make sure that it's done properly. Generically called the Basel Conventions, these were initiated in 1989 in Basel, Switzerland, and have evolved forward since then.

Over 150 nations around the world adhere to the Basel Conventions. The United States is one of four that have not ratified -- and do not adhere to -- these international agreements. These charts show that the United States is the international "bad boy" of computer recycling. While one can only speculate as to why this is, it does seem clear that U.S. policy is captive to lobbyists and driven by narrow special interests.

It costs several dollars per item to properly dispose of much e-waste, and our society has decided not to pay that price. Instead those costs are imposed on the environment and those who work overseas in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

What You Can Do

If you want to rectify this situation, educate yourself, then become socially and politically active. The public looks to IT professionals, industry participants, computer engineers and hobbyists for special understanding on technical issues. Legislators look to us for leadership. If the computer-savvy community remains ignorant, rest assured these practices will not change.

Computer community leaders have already scored major successes. One example are vendor "take back" programs, where computer manufacturers and sellers take back used equipment for recycling. A decade ago few programs existed. Today all major companies have take back programs. Several vendors have recently announced that their programs specifically forbid export recycling, and as the word about fake recycling spreads and public awareness builds, others will likely follow.

If you have an old computer you no longer use, please do not let it sit in your attic or basement. As a volunteer at the non-profit computer refurbisher Free Geek Chicago, I often receive donations that we could have fixed up and gotten to the needy -- had they not been aged in storage for several years. 

As IT professional, computer expert or hobbyst, you use current equipment. Please understand that a computer you discard may be useful to others.  About one-quarter of Americans do not own a computer. For many, a five to ten year old machine for basic activities like web surfing, word processing, and email means they don't have to trek to the public library or wait at school to use a shared computer. An older computer makes an excellent secondary machine for a large family. We have such demand for laptops at Free Geek that even Pentium II laptops find immediate placement.

For any computer you want to dispose of, please donate it to a refurbisher rather than to a recycler. A refurbisher reuses the equipment, while a recycler destroys it and reuses the component materials. Vendor take-back programs do not refurbish because they can not afford the labor to do this. They only recycle. But there are many non-profit refurbishers. You can find refurbishers to donate your old computer to here, hereand here.

Ask any refurbisher how far back they can reuse equipment. Organizations such as Free Geek can reuse computers up to ten years old (Pentium III's or better). Our "secret sauce" is a lightweight Linux distribution. Most refurbishers only reuse about five years back. Your goal should be to get a reburisher that reuses rather than recycles what you have to donate.

If your equipment is too old to be refurbished, how do you avoid fake recyclers? It can be difficult to identify them because most know full well that the public would be repulsed if they knew what their business entailed. They hide what they do. So you have to look for red flags. One red flag is that they accept CRT display monitors, TV's, and computer printers for free. These items can almost never be reused, and it costs money to environmentally recycle them. Organizations that environmentally recycle these items take a monetary loss on them if they don't ask for a small recycling fee. Printer disposal costs are usually about $3 to $10, and monitor and TV fees, $10 to $20.

Inspect the recycler's website. If it does not show photos of  "the crusher" and other de-manufacturing equipment, be suspicious. Fake recyclers post happy pictures of trucks eagerly hauling e-waste and nice stacks of computers in their building awaiting "recycling." What you're really seeing is collection and a distribution point for overseas shipping.
 
Finally, look for Basel Action Network's E-Steward certification program. This initiative certifies recyclers through strict standards. Unfortunately the program is new and the certification process is rather involved. So there are many worthy refurbishers and recyclers that the program does not list.

Coming Up ...

My previous OSNews article discussed the environmental impact of retiring computers before their time and how planned obsolescence forces this. This article exposed the fake recycling business. Now it's time to get technical. Next month I'll describe how to revitalize mature computers. Let's go refurbishing!

Update: Since this article has appeared, two export refurbishers have mentioned to me that by omitting legitimate overseas refurbishing from the discussion, the article seems to say that ALL overseas recycling is unsafe or unhealthy. This certainly is not the case and it was not my intent to imply it was. The goal of the article is simply to bring to the attention of the IT community the abuses that can occur in overseas recycling.

Robin Ingenthron writes an excellent blog that shares his years of experience in overseas refurbishing, detailing both the challenges involved and the successes possible. He explains how, done right, overseas refurbishing leads to both inexpensive computers and jobs in developing nations.


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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who specializes in databases and operating systems. He's been active in computer reuse and recycling as a hobby for over fifteen years.

Resources

Free Geek Chicago Reuse and Recycling
Free Geek Reuse and Recycling
Electronics Take Back Coalition E-waste information
Basel Action Network Fights fake recycling
Earth911 Complete information
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency The EPA on ecycling


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